Photo by Joshua Underscore
Photo by Joshua Underscore

Spotlight: Sonny Baker

by / Oct. 7, 2015 12am EST

I stop into Hardware on a Thursday night to see the Sonny Baker Band play. It’s their first show in a while, and the first since I’ve familiarized myself with the songs on their debut EP, Flesh It Out. It’s Baker’s first release since 2012’s Here Are Those Freaks You’ve Been Asking For that features more than just Baker and his guitar crooning into the wind. Even on Freaks Baker teamed up with Brandon Schlia, the creative force behind Steak and Cake Records, multi-tracking in a bedroom. Schlia recorded Flesh It Out as well, this time in a series of live takes in his studio.

In other words, Flesh It Out, with its fuzz and chaos and the potency of a full band behind it, has been a long time coming.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Baker playing by himself. His wit and musicianship set him apart from run-of-the-mill folk artists, who too often err on the wrong side of eager. The guitar work is inventive and angular; Baker, in his observations and sharp sarcasm, is more Larry David than Marcus Mumford. I had to get a huge tumor removed from my neck once and I loaded my phone with Baker’s music to listen to during my recovery because it was reassuring to feel like there was someone out there who might find the situation as absurd as I did.

That said, I’m excited to see Sonny playing with a band, if only to see the musical movements his solo work implies brought to life. It’s one hell of a band, too: Baker drafted drummer Ryan Campbell (Rhubarb, Gravy, and many other groovy acts) and bassist Chris Gangarossa (who plays with Baker in the jammier Lazlo Hollyfeld) to back him up.

I ask Baker later what it’s like to try to blend his predilections for jam bands and fuzzy rock into a single project. He sighs.

“It’s just, both of those are in me,” he says bashfully. “I just went to see Phish for three straight days. But I love Sonic Youth. I’ve just always wanted those songs to have verses and scream more. I just want it to be loud.”

More than volume, when the Sonny Baker Band finally strikes up there’s a physicality that’s borne of restraint. Too often, a band will try to cut through the noise by playing as hard as they can from open to close. In contrast, the Sonny Baker Band makes an impact with wise pacing, holding back and bursting forward as the set goes on. Major credit for this goes to the rhythm section, as disciplined as I’ve ever seen: Campbell’s drumming is dynamic but understated. And Gangarossa, Baker tells me later, the man could play four notes for an entire song and they’d be the most perfect four notes possible.

Baker is no slouch either. On the album, lead single “You’re a Disaster/I’m a Disaster” is an energetic standout, but as Baker rips into the song’s main riff live, he achieves something far more chest-thumping and unique. His guitar work would be equally at home on a Pile record or blaring over the loudspeakers at a baseball game.

Baker’s presence is as striking as his performance. He behaves more like a bandleader than a frontman, facing the players to set the pace of the song before spinning back around to face the crowd. Once the rhythm section lays the foundation, Baker is free to let loose, throw his head back, kick his legs out in a dance somewhere between Chuck Berry’s duck walk and Charlie Brown’s shuffle. Despite all the movement, no notes ring out of place and, despite the fact that he continuously describes his sonic goal for the band as “chaos,” the result is more like finely orchestrated noise.

Baker strikes me as a reluctant individualist. It’s hard to say whether this is the result of playing by himself for so long or vice versa, but I’d wager the latter. That would explain why his guitar work has evolved to fill in the gaps a band would fill, why he cops to an affinity for Larry David, and why the fourth song on the album, “Put Your Phone Down,” is a takedown that declares, “There’s always an asshole in the crowd/and you’re that asshole.” That last lyric is especially telling: Baker positions himself away from the crowd, but only just—still close enough to comment on it.

A true individualist is also, I think, a true weirdo: You can’t quite melt in anywhere, even with the outsiders. Baker’s album art, lifted from his sketchbook, evokes this impression: Most illustrations feature grotesque, toothy, mangled faces, often smiling and sometimes friendly but much too strange to ever invite to dinner.

It’s this quality, I imagine, which makes Baker a good bandleader and might have made it difficult for him to find a band in the first place. A good leader is impatient in wanting to forge ahead, expects and encourages excellence, demands cohesion but also stands alone. But that’s mere inference: All I can say for sure is that Sonny Baker suffers no fools, or else they later end up his targets, as evidenced by his song “Collapse, Something Important” from his 2014 release, Mangled in the Front, which begins, “If I could, I would punch you square in the throat,” and gets meaner from there.

Baker does play well with others. In addition to playing guitar in the instrumental post-rock band Lazlo Hollyfeld, he plays drums in the indie-rock band Wooden Waves, among other projects. He’s a versatile, prolific, and talented guy.

But still, there’s something singular about him, and even if the Sonny Baker Band stops being a solo act and changes their name—as they may well  do—I really doubt Baker himself would fade any into the background.

w/ Newish Star, Softlines & Andy Pothier
Mohawk Place
47 E Mohawk St. / Buffalo
Thur, Oct 15 / 8pm / $5
Facebook: SonnyBakerMusic